Jay Decker influenced Wichita through music for more than 60 years as associate conductor of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, conductor of the Wichita State University Symphony Orchestra and in other roles.
He was the consummate gentleman and professional who conducted his way through holiday concerts and Riverfest Twilight Pops concerts. He mentored musicians throughout the Midwest.
Dr. Decker died July 31. He was 82. A memorial service will be at 4 p.m. Aug. 18 at the University Congregational Church, 9209 E. 29th St. North in Wichita.
He was born May 20, 1935, in Sioux City, Iowa. He was 10 when he and his family moved to Wichita, and his father, Harold Decker, became director of choirs at Wichita University.
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As a child, Jay Decker played the piano, then the trumpet. But in seventh grade, he became a cellist.
“I always wanted to be a musician and a teacher,” Dr. Decker told The Eagle in 2005. “And I always wanted to conduct an orchestra.”
And he did. He played in the school orchestras at Roosevelt Junior High and at East High. He played in the youth orchestra on Saturdays and formed a string quartet with friends.
Then, he went to Wichita University – now Wichita State University – and became a music education major and played cello in the Wichita Symphony. In 1955, he won the Naftzger Young Artist Audition.
In 1956, Dr. Decker graduated from college and taught in Springfield, Mo., for seven years. He also earned degrees from the University of Illinois and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He founded the Springfield Youth Symphony and was director of orchestras at the University of Missouri-Kansas City – and a freelance cellist. He was conductor of the Kansas City Civic Ballet.
In 1971, he returned to Wichita, where he became director of orchestras at Wichita State and was named music director of Wichita State. He also became associate conductor of the Wichita Symphony and served as conductor of the Wichita Symphony Youth Symphony from 1972 until 1986, and was active as a guest conductor of the WSO for Young People’s Concerts, holiday concerts, Ballet Wichita’s “Nutcracker” and Riverfest Twilight Pops until 2015.
His first time in a Wichita Symphony program was on Nov. 13, 1971, when he conducted the symphony for the Kansas Music Teachers Association convention at Kansas State University, said Don Reinhold, CEO of the Wichita Symphony Society. The first half of the concert, they played the “Overture in Beethoven Symphony No. 1”; the second half of the concert was conducted by Aaron Copland – one of the most famous American composers from the 20th century.
“Jay always had time to answer any question,” Reinhold said. “He was tremendously patient and he always came well prepared – which is one thing orchestras value tremendously. I don’t know anyone who is more synonymous with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra than Jay Decker. No one had more history.”
In 1998, when he conducted his final symphony concert as associate conductor for the Wichita Symphony, the audience immediately rose to its feet. He humbly gave credit to the musicians.
The musicians rose as he left the stage. As the audience continued to stand and applaud, he returned; greeted onstage by his daughters, who presented him with a bouquet. When he returned for his third bow, the orchestra remained seated and instead joined in the applause for their longtime associate – as a gesture of respect.
He was always a mentor and friend to musicians.
“I’ve been at the university since 2006 and met Jay Decker before I was hired,” said Mark Laycock, director of WSU’s Orchestras. “He had long since retired from the university but he cared enough about the program that he attended every audition for the orchestra. He was always very supportive in attending concerts, sent occasional emails and called, encouraging me and my students. He knew the struggles and challenges I was going through and always offered great advice.”
A few days before Dr. Decker died, a gift from the Lattner Family Foundation to the Symphony in Dr. Decker’s honor was received. Dr. Decker had selected the music for the second concert of this upcoming season. On Oct. 28-29, the concert will be dedicated to him as they play “Beethoven’s Fifth.”
He will also be honored at the (Wichita) Walk to Defeat ALS by his team of “JayWalkers” on Sept. 23.
Dr. Decker is survived by his wife, Phyllis V. Decker; daughters, Dana Knorr (Patrick), Debbie Gans (Ron); son, Dan Decker (Debbie); stepdaughters, Kim Coe (Kevin) and Kelley Stewart Naron; sister, Kathe Thompson (John); and 12 grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by his first wife, Alice (Graber) Decker, and his parents, Harold and Peg Decker.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Jay C. Decker Endowed Scholarship for String Students Memorial, c/o WSU Foundation, 1845 Fairmount, Wichita, KS 67260-0002 or Wichita Symphony Orchestra, 225 W Douglas, Wichita, KS 67202.